Keith Brandt
Keith Brandt, managing partner, Dentons Hong Kong

The managing partner and head of the litigation and dispute resolution group at Dentons Hong Kong, Brandt joined the firm in 2011 and has more than 35 years of experience in dispute resolution, including high court/commercial court litigation, domestic and international arbitration, expert determinations, alternative dispute resolution, and mediations with particular focus on the energy, construction and financial services sectors.

 

ALB: Tell us about your role. What does the average day look like for you?

Brandt: I am the firm's Hong Kong office managing partner. I am responsible for its day-to-day operations on the ground and through chairing our Hong Kong Advisory Board and I tie in the Hong Kong office to the firm’s operations and affairs globally. I report directly to the firm’s global leadership, our Global CEO and chairman. I hold membership and sit on the firm's Global Advisory Committee. I am also a leader (including past chair) of our global litigation and dispute resolution practice group. I am an occasional receptionist, the firm's postman (I deliver the mail), routine agony aunt, occasional punch bag and apparently live in an ivory tower!

My average day typically follows a similar pattern, particularly when (as most recently has been my experience) I am here in Hong Kong (as opposed to my usual, almost constant, demands for travelling). Sadly, as a slave to technology, and absolute demands for responsiveness, I routinely wake up at 6:00 am, reach for the iPhone and, with a slight sense of trepidation, click on the inbox to see what carnage has been wreaked in the five or so hours since I last haplessly reviewed it. I quickly scroll down to ascertain if the day will be deeply interrupted by some clients or firm (or possibly family) crisis.

A creature of habit, I always get to the office early (a sad, historic consequence of the introduction of congestion charging in London in the 80s causing a need to get into Central London to avoid the then expensive daily £5 surcharge imposed if you arrived in the City after 7:00 am).

Talking of morning routine, coffee is another imperative. Thank you to all the lobby team at Starbucks in Jardine House, who unflinchingly, and with grace and charm, serve me every day. As a rule, the office desktop will not be greeted (switched on) unless it is accompanied by a coffee.

The morning is spent replying to emails before, typically, attending mid-morning meetings with the disputes teams I routinely work with or meetings with HR, admin or finance. Another sad indictment of the slave to routine is the frequent five-minute walk to the Hong Kong Club for lunchtime meetings with clients, targets, fellow professionals etc. I am often told that I lack imagination when it comes to eating out. The truth is I see no need to look elsewhere. It is generally the right solution for most occasions. Great food, value and inevitably the perfect setting and environment for business-related meetings – an oasis of calm.

Client meetings, pursuit of growth opportunities, practice development or marketing meetings in the afternoon, normally giving way in the evening, to opening time in Europe and the U.S. and inevitable evening client calls, meetings/zoom or conference calls that come with the various hats I wear. There will always be a call home (to the UK) somewhere interspersed in all of that (a long-time habit from the 90s when I was away from my wife and family for protracted periods for the first time, on extended travelling engagements, spanning some four years, spent largely on a plane, pursuing recoveries around the world for creditors following the collapse of the Global Bank, BCCI).  Lastly, to round off the day, late-night assignations (again) with the coffee table (circumnavigating to complete 10,000 steps per day) and the dreaded iPhone.

ALB: What have been some of your highlights from your time in charge? And what are some leadership lessons you have learnt?

Brandt: I started the firm, in its former iteration, from a greenfield site in 2001, some 20 years ago. In my second tour of duty (I was first here in the mid-80s) I have had the privilege of launching two international firms' practices and, in this magical place called Hong Kong, from a concept, an idea, an office, a desk, a table ... a business was born and opened on Dec. 1, 2001. It arrived in Jardine House where it has stayed until now. I have essentially led the business for two decades, taking it into Dentons at the end of 2010 (an absolute highlight in my time in Hong Kong) and, from day one until now, watched over and overseen the firm grow, to the business it is today – eight partners and a team of 60 outstanding people representing a local, regional and international practice in the global firm of Dentons.  During those 20 years, we have together navigated through the downturn, post-1997; charted a way through SARS; opened our then first representative office in Beijing (another highlight); overcome the economic challenges of the 2008 crash; observed at close quarters the 2014 "Occupy Central" Umbrella Movement; established Hong Kong as a place of significant importance in the Greater Bay Area; and more recently wept at the events of 2019 and 2020 that have defined (and sadly, divided) Hong Kong. Despite each of these seismic events, the team I have led has kept its nerve, its focus and continued with unshakable faith, dedication, commitment and endeavour, always delivering high quality, timely, pragmatic advice to its clients, and remaining true to common values, continuing the journey of growth, nurturing and delivering excellence in the practice of law, determined to meet each new challenge that Hong Kong, as its journey reveals and the place evolves, throws in its path!  I look on this, and the exceptionally loyal team, with huge pride.

In terms of lessons learned, patience is high on the list, followed by resilience and the need to adapt and be flexible. If something at first does not succeed, try again whilst pursuing a different course, path or solution. The journey I have personally undertaken has also revealed to me much about myself, of which previously I was blissfully unaware, providing me with a number of surprises! Two characteristics about myself spring to mind: (i) a brute force, unflinching determination to succeed; and (ii) an ability and willingness to take difficult decisions and execute on a plan, seemingly in circumstances where my better nature cried against such action/decision-making. Over the years, demands for clarity of thought and decisive leadership have toughened me up. These characteristics were not obvious qualities which I would have ordinarily associated with myself in my formative early years in this profession. 

ALB: What are some of the big challenges the firm has been facing in the past few months, and how are you looking to tackle them?

Brandt: Like everyone in Hong Kong, the firm has faced the challenge of the "triple whammy" (a term affectionately coined by our leadership, and which I embrace) of: (i) the political, social and economic unrest of 2019 following the ill-fated attempt to introduce the widely-criticized extradition ordinance; (ii) the arrival of the COVID-19 global pandemic; and (iii) more recently, the further destabilizing uncertainty for Hong Kong and its people, arising from the promulgation of the National Security Law, earlier this summer.  In tackling these challenges, we have responded by purposefully looking at our clients, our people and our future.

First – our clients: These times, the continuing uncertainty from the last 15 months has paralyzed economic activity – a paralysis which is the foe of lawyers, when crippling indecision descends like a mist, causing transactions to be suspended, falter, or worse simply crater. We have nevertheless remained close to our loyal clients, and successfully deployed the new technologies the firm has developed (such as the New Dynamic Hub on our website available to clients and the community we serve), equipping them with the necessary information to help them navigate and address accelerating change, resulting from the evolving climate in which we operate. These efforts reflect the firm's diversity, its focus on providing business-oriented "solutions" advice to clients, through the size, scale and reach of the firm, as we seek to position ourselves as business advisors, to help clients with the new dynamic, post COVID-19. More often than not, meetings have been substituted by zoom calls. Familiarity and confidence with new technologies have also enabled us to reach wider audiences as, together with our clients, we seek to navigate and manage change around the world, brought about by recent events.  Substituting the old ways of hosting in-person meetings/conferences etc., with training/workshops/seminars for our clients, with virtual events has allowed us successfully to significantly reach wider audiences than we otherwise hitherto might have imagined. Our clients have responded, warmly and generously, by attending our events and continuing to prevail on us to assist them with finding solutions to their ever-changing needs.  

Second – our people: We have focused on our team and tried, as best as we can, to insulate them from the inevitable financial hardships the triple whammy has caused everyone to confront. This includes striving to avoid furloughs, redundancies, reductions in salaries, or moving to shorter working weeks. Firm-wide, diversity and inclusion has remained, and increasingly been positioned, at the forefront of our agenda, whilst looking at the challenges of remote working, communicating with and supporting the team, its leaders and individual members and their well-being, all attendant on building/increasing resilience, to enable members to maintain their energy levels under pressure. Similarly, we have focused on acclimatising our team to the new methods of communication and their platforms whilst increasingly grappling with remote working, possible reconfigurations to the office to allow hot-desking, and the wellness of our people.

Third – looking to the future: Whilst others have possibly considered retrenchment or repositioning of resources or indeed retreating from this complex, congested marketplace, we, consistent with our firm’s wider strategy of connecting, scaling and innovating, have planned for further growth and integration within the firm’s wider platform. With the uncertainty in the market, brought about by the challenges presently faced, we see this as a real opportunity to further grow and expand with increasing confidence – adding new talent, expertise and practices to our business has been central to our strategy. In 2020, Dentons has already announced more than 20 new offices around the world.            

ALB: How do you feel the pandemic will reshape not just the way your firm operates, but also the legal services industry in your jurisdiction?

Brandt: The legal profession will need to rethink its traditional dependency on the office, as remote working, video conferences and webinars are now popular ways of communication. Our clients and staff are also familiar with these new ways of interaction through virtual tools. Certainly, a re-evaluation of how we use our office space will be undertaken, coupled with perhaps some repositioning of our staff and resources.

ALB: What is the best piece of advice you have ever received? What motto do you live by?

Brandt: Best piece of advice received: You will always meet someone more than once in this world! I am often confounded by this truism. Accordingly, on induction, I always tell our younger members of the team to remember to treat people properly, courteously, respectfully and professionally, with the assumption that this is how they will remember you, and (hopefully) treat you, when you next collide!

Motto: Be good towards and always look after your team. You are merely a reflection of their success.

 

ALB Conversations is a weekly series of in-depth Q&As with leaders of law firms and in-house legal departments across Asia. If you are a managing partner or general counsel based in the region who is interested in being a part of this series, please send an email to aparna.sai@tr.com.